Truth vs. respect. How much truth do you as a filmmaker owe your audience? Do you pander to prurient interests and simple curiosity or try to tell the story as the subject would dictate, even if that means that certain facts are left to supposition? Two productions that portray the life of singer and activist Aretha Franklin are both streaming. The film “Respect,” starring Jennifer Hudson, is finishing it’s limited theatrical release, and “Genius: Aretha” (director Anthony Hemingway) is part of a larger National Geographic series and recently won an Emmy.
The Queen of Soul remains an inspiration to many people. The first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and an activist who traveled with Martin Luther King starting at the tender age of 16 was also an intensely private person. Although she gave her blessing to Hudson to portray her in “Respect,” Franklin still wasn’t willing to reveal some secrets from her past. The film clocks in at 2 hours and 25 minutes and yet the story arc of the film has quite a few holes. Director Liesl Tommy even has one of the characters, Mary J Blige portraying Dinah Washington, ask, “And you still haven’t told anyone who’s the daddy to your kids?”
Now that “Respect” has left most movie theaters, the film can be streamed online for $19.99. Should you choose to pay for that version of the story? Or are you going to stream “Genius: Aretha” on Nat Geo TV or Hulu for free? Do you want to invest your time to watch eight episodes (and eight hours) featuring Cynthia Erivo, or invest your cash in watching two-and-a-half hours, featuring Hudson and the star-studded cast of “Respect”? Franklin’s family have boycotted the National Geographic series, even though the Franklin estate gave permission for the production. They claim that Franklin would’ve sued to stop the filming as she did the release of her concert film, “Amazing Grace” (1972).
Does the movie “Respect” treat the Franklin story with more respect because it leaves out some crucial truths about her life? The film gives little clue to what Franklin’s mother endured and the reason she left. Glossing over Reverend Franklin’s womanizing. There’s a glimpse of a pregnant Franklin and two scenes that allude to a party guest raping her or someone in the house creeping into her room as she clutches her doll in fear.
It’s one secret that Franklin never revealed to the public — who was the father, or fathers, of her first two children. “Respect” does have young Franklin unwilling to get her hair straightened. It’s clear she’s experienced a trauma and doesn’t want to be made to look pretty. Yet her grandmother doesn’t pressure her to tell her what happened but to “tell God.” The film may skim over her early life, but it isn’t shy about the abuse Franklin suffered at the hands of her husband or her drinking problems. It seems to hide the family dirty laundry but lingers on Franklin’s later trials and tribulations.
The television series was approved by the Franklin estate and reveals more of her earlier life. There’s time spent with the young Franklin on the Gospel circuit and the reality of her father’s carousing and her lack of supervision. The docudrama would have us believe that it was during that time that the 12-year-old was seduced with alcohol and dancing. “Genius: Aretha” gives us one scene of “Little Re” sharing a room with her father and waking up with what he recognizes immediately as a hangover. He gives her a fizzy drink and tells her that she’ll feel better quickly. Saturday night transgressions cannot interfere with Sunday morning preaching. Franklin is seen taking in that hypocrisy as she looks around at the adults in the church that were sinning the night before.
Reverend Franklin is confronted by his mother once Re’s pregnancy is discovered. Big Mama slaps him and she tries to hold him accountable for his pregnant child. He decides to sweep any repercussions for this misdeed under the rug. They’ll raise the child as a family, and Franklin won’t miss school or let it interfere with her singing. What?! The reason he’s so willing to bury the truth of this rape is revealed later in the series. His own young pregnant wife discovers that he’s forced himself on a 12-year-old child of his own Parrish. She’s pregnant too and the good reverend has purchased two cribs.
None of this background is in the film. Franklin’s father isn’t portrayed as a saint but his transgressions are kept out of the story. The series reveals how upset the Franklin family was when a cover story by Time magazine reveals some unflattering details of their lives. The fact remains that by age 15, Franklin was a mother to two children and her father made her drop out of school.
The music and the performances are the reason to stream either version: a long film that may not give you a full picture of Franklin as a child or the more factual made-for-TV series that leaves you exhausted with the poor choices and hard life Franklin endured. Hudson may have been hand-picked by the queen herself, but she doesn’t physically resemble her nearly as much as Erivo does. Both productions have their flaws and false notes but is either one more respectful of Franklin’s memory?
In the end, I think that both directors and filmmaking teams tried to do justice in portraying Franklin’s journey. One thing that’s clear from both productions, it wasn’t until Franklin freed herself from her domineering father and abusive husband and began to respect herself and her talent that she gained the fame and power she deserved.
Drinks with films ratings: “Respect” — 2 glasses of bourbon out of 5, some stellar performances and great musical numbers but a sugarcoating of Franklin’s early home life. See this for Jennifer Hudson’s performance.
“Genius: Aretha” — 2 1/2 glasses of bourbon out of 5, a huge endeavor but having the story seesaw through time made keeping the characters and timeline straight a challenge. Cynthia Erivo is the better Franklin in my book. See this one if you want a more complete picture.